Chief Economist on the need for serendipity: the cradle of creativity

It's really interesting to see what the Bank of England’s Chief Economist Andy Haldane has been saying about home working stifling creativity and exposure to new ideas.

In a speech posted on the Bank's website, he talks about the loss of external stimuli, chance conversations, listening to very different people with very different lived experiences – all those catalysts for the kind of serendipity that drives innovation.

It's exactly the challenge we've been focusing on over the past seven months in work we're doing with some highly creative businesses in fields as diverse as fashion, retail and entertainment.

Andy Haldane's full speech is well worth a read. He recognises some of the benefits of a home working environment – the absence of distraction and noise helps with “cognitive tunnelling” when you need to be in flow, for example.

But he says: “Home-working means serendipity is supplanted by scheduling, face-to-face by Zoom-to-Zoom. What creativity is gained in improved tunnelling is lost in the darkness of the tunnel itself.”

He calls serendipity the cradle of creativity – and says there are real and growing costs when “creative sparks” and the “social capital” of informal conversations outside meetings are lost.

He says: "I always knew that I picked up a lot of information from the unscheduled time between meetings, when informal and sometimes chance conversations take place. Having now lived without them for six months, I now realise these informal non-meetings were often my main source of information. The informal chat in the five-minute walk from the lift to my office often contained more useful knowledge than the subsequent one-hour meeting in my office."

His conclusion is the best model is neither five days a week working from home or five days a week in the office but a balance that also recognises how efficient virtual working can be – a hybrid approach we ourselves were moving towards when the first lockdown ended.

Some of the businesses we've been working with since the start of lockdown have been sharing ideas and trying different ways to foster serendipity when their teams can't be together face to face. Finding ways to encourage people to surprise each other, to explore uncharted territory, to share knowledge that may have nothing to do with the tasks at hand is a genuine challenge.

One of our recent blog posts describes a few of the ways we've been trying to do this within our team and some of the other teams that use Shooglebox.

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